In the last two years, we’ve spent a lot of time using our Toyota 4Runner as a base of operations for car camping. We’ve learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t, and what makes our lives a whole lot easier on the road.
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From better campsite cooking to clever car maintenance to smartphone-free communication in the backcountry, here are our favorite gadgets to seriously up your car camping game.
Best Gadgets for Car Camping
Neso Grande Multipurpose Shade
Anytime we’re planning to car camp for an extended period (say, more than five days), we love having designated areas at our site. Carving out proper space for sleeping (whether that’s just our 4Runner or the 4Runner with our SUV tent attached), a kitchen (near the campfire), and a “living room” makes the entire setup feel more like home.
For the latter, we love the Neso Grande. While technically billed as a “beach shade,” it’s a versatile sun and weather shade that works just about anywhere. The nylon/Lycra-blend material means it’s water-resistant and features a UPF 50+ rating.
Unfurled, it covers a 110″ x 110″ area — more than enough to anchor an outdoor living room. The best part is that the entire affair (including two rust-proof aluminum poles and four anchor bags) packs into a sleeping-bag-sized carry case that all weighs just 6.5 pounds.
Solo Stove Bonfire Steel Fire Pit
The heart — literally and figuratively — of any good car camping site is the fire. Some campgrounds are good about providing a dedicated space ringed with stones for safety. Some, especially more remote sites, provide nothing at all. Either way, whenever and wherever we’re car camping, we never take the fire pit setup for granted.
The aptly named Bonfire by Solo Stove is a self-contained solution that virtually guarantees a safe, reliable fire at every campsite, no matter where we’re parked. The patented design provides a steady airflow to help burn wood logs evenly and with less smoke than a traditional fire pit.
At almost $300, it’s not cheap. But, it works like a charm and it’s pretty handsome to boot — the perfect centerpiece for our nightly Jenga and ukulele circles (kidding … sort of).
Kammok Roo UL Camping Hammock
Of course, just as important as beer and a fire is a decent hammock. Together, these three represent the holy trinity of everything that’s good about camping. Fortunately, you needn’t pack a duffel-bag-sized hammock to enjoy the latter.
We’re long-time fans of Kammok’s ultralight camping hammocks. They’re incredibly strong and well-designed — enough so that they’ll probably outlast you. They’re also ridiculously comfortable, even for two people.
The latest ultra-light collection includes the Roo Single UL. Throw in a set of Python 10 UL suspension straps and you have a ready-to-go hammock setup that you can take almost anywhere. The entire kit packs down ridiculously small with the single hammock and straps taking up about as much room as a wine bottle.
myCharge AdventureUltra Backup Battery
One of our favorite things about car camping (and camping in general) is the potential for digital detoxing. But, we still have a website to run which means we travel with plenty of gear. Smartphones, laptops, outdoor lighting, digital cameras, Bluetooth speakers — the works. Of course, a lot of gear requires a lot of power. Recharging everything off the car battery isn’t a long-term solution. That’s why we always pack a heavy duty backup battery.
The AdventureUltra is the flagship backup power solution from myCharge. This thing is a beast. The rechargeable 13,400mAh battery offers AC power output, two built-in USB A ports, and an USB-C port to boot. It’s more than enough to keep all of our devices — including our laptops! — topped up until we return to civilization (i.e., a proper power outlet).
Coleman Extreme Cooler
When you’re car camping for days on end (without access to “luxuries” like electricity), keeping your refrigerate-able food cold is a challenge. Thankfully, there’s help in the form of an extreme cooler. Bait coolers have long been a thing for fishermen in the know. But, many outdoor companies have started marketing the same coolers as “extreme coolers” to the masses.
The Coleman 55-Quart Heavy-Duty Super Cooler definitely does the trick. To be sure, this is a big beast. (Honestly, if you’d prefer a cooler that doesn’t need to be lugged around, check out the comprehensive wheeled coolers guide by Globo Surf.) It offers more than enough cold storage for one car-camping couple for an entire week. Plus, with proper ice maintenance (yes, that’s a thing), it’ll keep your Zima, bacon, and brats cold for up to six days even when outside temps hover around 90°F.
ICEMULE BOSS Cooler
Two coolers? Yep. Here’s why: we found that we always had plenty of stuff to keep refrigerator cold like bacon, meat, eggs, milk, and the like. But, things like sodas and beer were just fine to keep only chilled. For car camping, we pack a separate smaller cooler for things like this because it allows us to save space in our main cooler.
The ICEMULE BOSS is, well, the boss for our chilled goods. It’s portable, has great ice retention, and loads and unloads super easy. Plus, the backpack format means it’s easy to pack a gourmet lunch complete with ice-cold booze, ice cream, and even a couple of cheesecakes into the backcountry.
Coleman Roadtrip 285 Portable Propane Grill
One of our favorite things about car camping is campfire cooking. We love finding new recipes, then figuring out how the hell to make them over an open flame. Coleman had us covered there as well with the aptly named Coleman Roadtrip 285 Portable Stand-up Propane Grill. It features 20,000 BTUs of grilling power and a 285-square-inch cooking area which is more than enough for the two of us plus a few friends. It’s ultra-compact and lightweight but opens wide to include two side tables for utensils and other essentials while you’re cooking. Plus, the matchless, push-button ignition feels like a luxury at our campsite.
Swiss Diamond XD Nonstick Deep Square Grill Pan
Of course, having a great cooking surface to cook on is no good without a great pan to cook your food in. We pared down our camp kitchen substantially so that our entire kit fit in just two medium-sized crates. One pan that works with almost any food and any situation is the nonstick cookware from Swiss Diamond. The XD Nonstick Deep Square Grill Pan is a great, all-purpose pan that does the job. From cooking eggs to fried potatoes to casseroles, it works for just about any meal. Plus, the XD nonstick coating is super slick and easy to clean which, for car campers, is almost more important than how well it cooks.
FIXD Automotive Adapter
One of the most important components of car-camping is — wait for it — your car. Or truck or SUV. But, it’s easy to overlook the maintenance of your vehicle when your focused on buying the right cooler and making sure your grill has enough propane.
The FIXD diagnostic sensor does all the heavy lifting in this department, even if you don’t know your carburetors from your carbohydrates. It’s a tiny, matchbook-sized device that plugs into an outlet standard on most cars made after 1996. Just click it into place, sync it to your smartphone, and it’ll keep tabs on all your vehicle’s systems and sensors. Funky smells, cylinder misfires, car overheating — whatever the problem, FIXD can give you the low-down. The free mobile app provides an easy-to-read, user-friendly readout that anyone — even those with zero automotive know-how — can understand.
Motorola T600 Talkabout 2-way Radio
The most interesting and adventurous places to explore are almost always the most remote. We often find ourselves in areas without a whiff of cell service. The solution: a decent two-way radio set. The Motorola T605 Talkabout bundle is super affordable (can be had for under $100) and it offers a staggering 35-mile range. Plus, it boasts a waterproof construction and a water-activated flashlight.
Some people are “umbrella people”. Others just say, “The hell with it … if I get wet, I get wet.” I tend to fall into the latter camp. But, we saw a lot of rain on our recent East Coast road trip. Eventually, Kelsey had enough. We learned that, if you’re planning to spend long periods of time outdoors, an umbrella is a good backup plan.
The Weatherman Umbrella is basically the umbrella to end all umbrellas. It’s lightweight, yet sturdy enough to hold up to 55-mph winds. Plus, it’s wide enough to shield you and a few friends from rain, hail, locust swarms, whatever. The lifetime warranty means it’ll likely be the last umbrella you’ll ever need to buy. And the built-in Bluetooth tracker means you’ll never lose — or leave home — without it.
LifeProof LIFEACTÍV Power Pack 10 Qi Wireless
We disconnect as much as possible whenever we’re car camping. But, there are certain digital luxuries we can’t live without. A Bluetooth speaker, an Amazon Kindle, and the ability to document our journeys at least with our smartphones to name a few. While it’s technically possible to keep all our devices topped up via the car battery, it’s hardly eco-friendly to run the car for 20 minutes just to do so.
Instead, we rely on backup battery packs to keep us powered up. LifeProof’s LIFEACTIV line is awesome, especially for camping and outdoor adventure travel. I love the LIFEACTÍV Power Pack 10 Qi Wireless, in particular. Not only is it waterproof, but dropproof, dirtproof, and snowproof as well. It’s capable of going almost literally anywhere.